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Unlikely Book Connections: Mesopotamian Beer

Mesopotamian beer is made using an ancient recipe dating from around 1800BEC, the Hymn of Ninkasi.!

I recently finished two books that I have been reading. I started Tom Standage's book A History of the World in 6 Glasses over the summer last year and just finished it within the last week or so. I also finished a book that I got as a Christmas present called Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Big instead of great, by Bo Burlingham. These two books are quite different from one another, but each has a special place to me due to my personal interest in business and entrepreneur ship and world history, especially economic history. Each of these books takes an approach that differs from the typical approach of their respective fields. I was very surprised that I discovered a small link between these two seemingly disparate topics. That link is Fritz Maytag.

Fritz Maytag is a member of the Maytag family that is responsible for the line of dependable home appliances. He chose to strike out on his own path and left the family business for the brewing business. (If you have never heard of him, don't feel bad. I had never heard of him before reading these books either.) In "Small Giants" Maytag (along with his company Anchor Brewing) occupies a prominent place as one of only fourteen companies featured. It was a coincidence that I finished Small Giants around the same time that I finished "A History of the World in 6 Glasses" and another coincidence that I made the connection between these two books. Maytag's role in 6 Glasses is much smaller, as Standage cites him in the acknowledgements and appendix of the book. "Fritz Maytag, at the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, painstakingly recreated Mesopotamian beer using an ancient recipe dating from around 1800BEC, the Hymn of Ninkasi. (Ninkasi was the Mesopotamian goddess of brewing.)" (Standage, 2006, page 278.)

A History of the World in 6 Glasses for me started out slow. Perhaps that is because it starts out in the Neolithic Period when sedentary agriculture was first emerging, at a time when everything was slow to develop. As the book moves along it picks up steam and does a great job of using the thread of the chosen beverages of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. The history of these items of consumption does a great job of elucidated other elements of history. (As a side note, for some stretches of time as I was reading this book I was also reading Rondo Cameron's A Concise Economic History of the World.) The narrative of 6 glasses moves along nicely, covering large periods of time in enough detail as to be instructive, but not dwelling on minutiae or bogging the reader down. The point of view taken in this book does much to add another dimension to the image of the periods in time covered in the book and can do much to round out the understanding of any student of history. The end of the book also provides some interesting insights into the drink of the future, water. (The book is clear to point out that water is, was, and will be the most important drink in many ways.)

Small Giants is also a compelling read. It takes a look at a unique subset of business, those who chose to forgo growth to focus instead on excellence. The desire to do so runs counter to many assumptions that are often made about business. For one it dispels the notion that smart and ambitious people will always want to do things bigger and better. Fritz Maytag is an example of a smart, capable, and educated businessman who has consciously chosen to define his success in ways other than sheer size of enterprise. This choice has not come without its trade-offs for Maytag and others in the book. But Maytag has made interesting and unique contributions to his local community and (as the case of the Mesopotamian beer above shows) wider audiences. Burlingham does a great job of telling these gripping and inspiring stories of critical business choices often made under pressing duress.

Though it is not a practice in which I routinely engage, if you are reading non-fiction, I would encourage you to read more than one non-fiction book at once, especially if the books are as seemingly unconnected as the books above. I hope to try a similar experiment some time in the near future. By reading two books that are so far apart from each other at once your mind will automatically begin to seek to make connections between the two texts. It may lead you to some interesting discoveries.

Note on Non-Fiction

(Reading two non-fiction books at once may just result in character and plot confusion. Or at least that is what I think would happen with me.)

by Cameron Hatch
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